Sylvia Mary Ives

To be a farmer's girl

Excerpt from 'A Short Career in Agriculture 1948-1950'

Black and white photo of farmyard, woman tending two cattle in the foreground with low barn buildings beyond.Frescombe Lodge was lovely, standing as it did on the top of the Downs. To the north lay the Sussex Weald like a patchwork covering many counties and to the South the sea. A man from the Min of Ag and Fish used to keep an official eye on us and in the deep winter would remark 'It's pretty fresh up on the combes today'.

My brief was to plough up a great area of virgin ground. With hindsight, from an environmentally aware millennium, this seems a shameful enterprise but then the need for grain was paramount. I set off on a Fordson Major tractor with an hydraulic plough carrying a board saw, axe, and a length of chain. I hacked and dragged out gorse bushes and scrub and ploughed up the cleared ground. Men from the Ag and Fish used to gather round to smirk and scribble on their clipboards.

Black and white photo of woman driving horse-drawn hay rake.On the cleared land we grew great crops of grain and sugar beet, a lot of backbreaking hoeing. At this point a combine harvester made its first appearance, very primitive by today's standards. I think it must have been a second-hand heap because, before we could use it, a completely new set of driving chains had to be got from somewhere. Mr Boss surfed the telephone book and found a firm in Wokingham who supplied them. Delivery service? Oh no. I was sent on my motor- bike to collect them.

Now, at my advanced age, I get in a state if I have to negotiate a roundabout but then I charged off with no map, no crash helmet and just a vague address. I imagined the chains would fit into the panniers on the bike but they turned out to be a great heap on the ground with enormous heavy links. The garage men shook their heads and sucked in their breath but in the end took pity on me and we looped all the smaller chains round the petrol tank and over the handlebars. The main chain I wore draped around my person and I set off weaving across the road.

This odd vehicle made steady progress until I simply had to obey a call of nature and find a hedge. I clanked along like Jacob Marley with the ponderous weight but afterwards when I tried to stand up again I simply couldn't make it being pinned to the ground by the awful weight. Eventually I crawled to a stout tree and managed to stand by going hand over hand up the trunk. I arrived back at Frensham after dark looking like something out of Mad Max but we did now have a viable machine.

Nowadays the corn is piped straight from the harvesters to vast trailers and taken to a grain silo untouched by human hand, but this one still used those dreadfully heavy sacks which were dumped straight on the ground to be gathered up with great labour, not mine thank goodness, although I did once carry one on my back into the barn just to show off, stupid cow. Well I am paying for it now.

We also had an ancient Fordson tractor that ran on tank tracks. I needed it one day and turned the crank handle. It backfired violently and smashed my arm badly but after a quick plastering I was soon back at work

Hitherto my social life was non-existent, but now I had a motor-bike I thundered off to the pictures with a rash swain on the pillion. Heady with the novelty of it all I charged down the sea front at vast speed. The police used bells then and gave chase. I was finally caught and booked. 'You're brave mate', said the policeman to my passenger. When the case came to court the headline in the paper read ' Police car couldn't catch her'. Nothing to be proud of now but what memories!

I quite enjoyed the life but the parents couldn't stand it any more and went their separate ways, very sad. My mother got a marvellous job housekeeping for two masters at Eton College and I decided to join the Women's Royal Air Force and train as a nurse. So many people pointed out to me the 'no future' aspect of being a farm worker and I lacked the necessary feminine wiles to ensnare a farmer and thank goodness for that.